Thomas: Irish flash potential amidst maddeningly inconsistent season
Aidan Thomas | Tuesday, January 26, 2021
In an 0-5 start to its ACC schedule, the Notre Dame men’s basketball team featured just about all of the inconsistencies and frustration that has plagued this team and prevented them from being a serious contender in recent seasons. There was the lack of defense against Duke (85-75), no offense vs. Virginia (66-57), and the inability to close out a close game (66-65 vs UNC). Then there was the second half collapse against Virginia Tech, turning a seven-point halftime lead into a 14-point loss, followed by a slow start, going down 12 by halftime in their second game against the Cavaliers.
Notre Dame (5-8, 2-5 ACC) was spiraling out of control. The team’s inconsistencies, highlighted by its heavy 3-point shot selection, were turning into pure weaknesses, as the Irish were becoming less competitive by the game.
However, in their past two outings, Notre Dame has finally turned some of their potential into results on the court, producing consecutive conference victories. While the opponents — Miami and Boston College — aren’t particularly fearsome, there’s hope that the Irish are finally putting things together. They’ve discovered a formula that has allowed them to overcome some of their biggest issues — a lack of depth and dependency on the 3-pointer.
In those two victories, Notre Dame has found more success in the paint, with big man graduate student Juwan Durham combining for 28 points against BC and Miami. Meanwhile, junior Prentiss Hubb, who was slumping in the worst way, has finally started to see some shots fall, notching 13 points against the Eagles and 19 against the Hurricanes. Hubb’s re-emergence gives Notre Dame newfound potency on the offensive end of the court, as junior guard Nate Laszewski has been a stud this season and now has a secondary weapon beyond the arc. He scored 16 points apiece in the two Irish wins, with a double-double against Miami.
So, the recipe is there. But the consistent results are not. What does Notre Dame need to do in order to turn this ship around? Here are a few thoughts.
Durham Stepping Up
Having lost star power forward John Mooney, the Irish needed graduate student Durham to step up this season, and while the Tampa, Florida, product has had some success, he’s also flashed many of the same inconsistencies that have frustrated Notre Dame fans for years.
The frustration with Durham can be summed up with one shot. Down one against UNC, the 6-foot-11 Durham had four seconds to work with when he received a pass about 10 feet from the basket, yet he released a jump shot in 0.6 seconds. It’s not necessarily a low-percentage look, but with over three seconds left and a charging defender, it felt like there was a better option. Namely, pump fake and drive your 6-foot-11, 231-pound frame towards the basket for an opportunity at a layup or game-winning dunk. Both have a higher percentage chance of success, while burning more time off the clock. Rather, Durham put up the jumper, which clanged out, leaving the Irish with a loss and Durham with just eight points on the day.
However, as aforementioned, Durham is a key part of Notre Dame’s offensive identity, and against BC, he posted the first double-double of the season. Notre Dame is 3-2 when Durham scores more than 10 points, and 2-6 in all other contests, so his success in the paint provides much-needed versatility for the Irish offense.
Hubb and Ryan Providing Consistent Scoring
How inconsistent can the Irish be offensively? The ever-streaky Prentiss Hubb has 13.7 points per game, but prior to the recent two-game winning streak for Notre Dame, the junior Hubb was one of 21 from 3-point land over the four-game losing stretch of Virginia, UNC, Virginia Tech and Virginia again. Last year, head coach Mike Brey called Hubb his “Patrick Mahomes,” and as the leader of the offense, Hubb was simply not doing enough. Against BC and Miami, Hubb went 8-14 from beyond the arc, providing the Irish with a much needed spark.
Junior transfer guard Cormac Ryan shoots just over 30% from 3-point land, while Hubb (now) checks in at just under 33%. When these two are firing on all cylinders, the Notre Dame offense becomes tough to stop. However, when one or more shooters go cold, as has occurred and is likely to continue happening, Notre Dame’s trigger-happy approach often leads to struggles, particularly down the stretch in games where Notre Dame frequently runs four-guard lineups out on the court. In that scenario the general philosophy appears to be 3-pointers or bust. While wins over inferior competition are nice, Notre Dame’s 5-8 record still shows that more is needed to win consistently in the ACC.
The Irish have struggled on the recruiting front in recent years, and it’s starting to take a toll, as their lack of depth off the bench becomes apparent every game. In two consecutive losses to UNC and Virginia, junior Nate Laszewski accounted for 40% of Notre Dame’s total scoring, as the Irish received just seven points from their bench against the Tar Heels.
Three starters played at least 35 minutes against the UNC, and the Irish continue to show that their bench really only runs two deep. With junior Trey Wertz out against the Tar Heels, freshman forward Matt Zona got some burn on the court, but Notre Dame primarily trots out a four-guard lineup with a pair of backup guards and a forward. With the Irish chucking up triple after triple, their offensive approach seems to get fatigued, and when 3-point shooting teams get tired, their shots get lazy, and the results get really bad.
This depth has showcased itself throughout the season, even in Notre Dame wins, such as its victory over Kentucky. The Irish led 48-26 at the half and should have cruised, but they notched just 16 points in the second half, allowing the Wildcats to storm back and make it a game. The Irish won 64-63, but the post-game mood hardly felt like they had secured their first ever win at Rupp Arena.
Can the Irish find a way to balance their top-heavy scoring with some production from the bench, or even some big minutes? If not, one injury could destroy this team, and their struggles in close games down the stretch will remain a pressing issue.
This didn’t used to be an issue for Notre Dame, and it still has time to sort itself out, but giving up 73.4 points per game, while it may not seem bad, is horrible by Irish standards. They haven’t given up more than 71.3 per game under head coach Mike Brey, and that was back in 2002-03. The 2015-16 season was the last where Notre Dame surrendered even 70 points per contest.
Notre Dame is inconsistent offensively, which means the team absolutely needs its defense to be a source of stability, allowing them to collect big wins when the shooting heats up. So far, the defense hasn’t been able to do that, giving up 90 to Ohio State and 88 to Purdue in games that Notre Dame played well enough to win on the offensive end of the court.
There have been recent signs of improvement — they gave up just 129 to BC and Miami combined — but after giving up 157 in the two losses prior to that contest, the Irish need to prove this defensive improvement isn’t a fluke. Notre Dame needs to keep trending upwards defensively to counter its inconsistent offensive output if they want any chance of truly turning around this season.
I’ve been a Notre Dame fan for a while. Admittedly, I was a football fan first and basketball second, but I’ve still seen the extreme ups and downs of this program under Brey, and while the talent seems to be there, there’s been a frustrating lack of results in recent seasons for the Irish. They made the NCAA Tournament in seven of eight seasons from 2010 through 2017, highlighted by a pair of trips to the Elite Eight. They appeared in the AP Poll in 12 straight seasons at one point.
Now, Notre Dame has fallen, missing the last two NCAA Tournaments — and it would have likely been three without last year’s cancellation. After peaking at No. 5 early in 2017, the Irish fell from the AP Poll and have not returned. They’re a national afterthought and little more than that in the ACC, but watching this team, you can see glimpses of a far better team than the numbers demonstrate.
While Lazewski has been the most consistent, Notre Dame saw Durham score 19 against Virginia and Ryan start the season by averaging 13 points per game in his first three outings, before falling to 9.1 since then. Hubb has exploded for 18+ on six occasions, but there’s that 1-21 stretch from 3-point range. Then there’s junior guard Dane Goodwin, who has scored 15+ five times and 25+ twice, but is just as frequently a non-factor on the offensive end of the court. This team has the talent, they just can’t seem to click at the same point.
Notre Dame is trending up defensively, and they’ve clearly got the talent to shoot and win on the offensive side of the court, even if that hasn’t clicked yet this season. Will a two-game win streak be enough to turn the fortunes for the Irish, or will this be another lost season under Mike Brey?
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.